Kevin O’Hara, a longtime Eagle contributor, is the author of “Ins and Outs of a Locked Ward: My 30 Years as a Psychiatric Nurse.”

NBA at 75 1960s

Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell, center, shakes hands with coach Red Auerbach as they watch the final seconds of an April 1965 Celtics playoff win over the Lakers. Later that year, Russell would leave a lasting impression on Eagle columnist Kevin O'Hara. Russell died July 31. He was 88.

On a blistering August afternoon in 1965, Billy “Willie Mouse” Carlo, Robbie “Ace” Connors and myself, aka “Shirts” O’Hara, trudged wearily for home on the Mass Turnpike, all three of us toting golf bags over slumped shoulders.

We were not in the best of moods. For starters, our stomachs, like our pockets, were empty. Secondly, our red-letter day had turned out to be a total flop. We had been chosen by Jim Simes, our engaging pro at the Country Club of Pittsfield, to represent the club at the annual Massachusetts Caddy Tournament. That year, the event was promised to be extra special, as the tourney itself was to be held at the storied Country Club in Brookline. It was there that 19-year old Francis Ouimet upset a contingent of British golfers by winning the U.S. Open in 1913, thus catapulting the game’s popularity in our country.

That morning, as 80 caddies from across the state waited excitedly to tee off on those hallowed grounds, four school buses chugged up the long, winding drive. Next, the assistant pro appeared from the clubhouse, saying there had been a terrible mix-up, and we’d now be playing at Putterham Meadows, a municipal golf course across town. Brokenhearted, we all boarded the buses and shortly arrived at the public 18-holer, a far cry from the splendor of the Country Club. To add to our misery, there was no food served or trophies presented at the tourney’s conclusion, but just a “hurry along” off the premises to make way for an afternoon golf league.

Down in the dumps, Willie, Ace, and I made our way to Beacon Street in Brookline and took the trolley to a bus depot, where we scraped up enough money to reach Sturbridge, 80 miles from home. Left with no other option but to thumb on the turnpike, we slipped by the toll operators, climbed a high-wire fence, slogged knee-deep through a muddy swamp, and finally hopped the guardrails. There we lumbered beneath the punishing sun, walking mile after mile down the sizzling highway. Meanwhile, a ceaseless caravan of cars whizzed by, paying little notice to three stragglers who began to squawk at their passing parade like angry crows.

Suddenly, a red Lincoln Continental convertible went flying by, threw on its brakes, fishtailed in reverse and screeched to a halt at our feet.

“Hop in, boys,” said a tall friendly Black man flashing a smile, accompanied by a charming female companion. “Where you headed?”

“Lee exit, Exit 2, thank you!” we blurted, pouring our bags and ourselves into the luxurious comfort of the Lincoln’s back seat.

The driver, grinning back at us, quickly resumed his fast pace, obviously not concerned about being issued a speeding ticket. Ace, fighting against the incessant draft, stuck his head between the bucket seats and asked, “Excuse me, sir, but are you Bill Russell?”

Taking no offense, the driver pointed his long finger toward a gold nameplate mounted on the glove compartment. It read: William F. Russell.

We madly poked one another at our sudden stroke of good fortune. Imagine, being driven home on the Mass Pike by the greatest basketball player of all time!

When we approached Exit 2, Willie took out his pencil and scorecard, and whispered, “We have to get Mr. Russell’s autograph, or none of our friends will ever believe us.” However, no sooner were we safely out of the vehicle than Bill Russell tooted his horn and roared away, disappearing from our lives as quickly as he entered.

Years later — September 1999 — I wrote an Eagle column about the caddy tournament in Brookline, and how Bill Russell saved the day. Once it was published, I sent a copy to my good friend, Denny Kelly, a St. Joe High grad who, at the time, was a Boston-based attorney representing the Celtics. I asked Denny if he could get the story to Bill Russell, in order to thank him for his good deed long ago. Denny, in turn, gave the clipping to Steve Riley, the Celtics ticket manager, who handed it to Mr. Russell the following month at a fundraiser.

“Do I have to read all of this?” the five-time MVP asked.

“No, sir. Just the last few paragraphs.”

Mr. Russell read the ending with a smile, before handing the clipping back to Steve.

“Do you remember picking up those three kids?” Steve asked.

“No, but I often picked up hitchhikers.”

On learning about Bill Russell’s death last week, I’ve been thinking a lot about my brief encounter with that extraordinary man hailed as a hero both on and off the court. Despite being bullied by racism in every NBA arena where he played, including Boston, No. Six still had the heart to stop for three wily white kids — golf bags, muddied legs and all — and invite them into his speeding red chariot with a warm and welcoming smile.

Kevin O’Hara, a longtime Eagle contributor, is the author of “Ins and Outs of a Locked Ward: My 30 Years as a Psychiatric Nurse.”